Thursday, February 04, 2010

Mind and Brain

One of the courses I am taking involves heavy reading on recent finding concerning the way our brains work and how that relates to traditional conceptions of the mind (a la the common Western philosophical distinction between mind and body). For example, the case can be made for how the root of our emotions are not amorphous feelings but actually an important part of how the brain functions in connection with the body. Similarly, there are social aspects to the brain. We have neurons in the brain that respond to social stimuli. Needless to say, this has been an intellectually interesting experience. (aside: if anyone knows of quality apologetic work that attempts to deal with these more recent findings, I would be interested to know about it. I was stunned by how unprepared I was to think about the implications of cognitive science for Christian belief.)

The reason this seems such an important question is in how the function of the brain may or may not relate to consciousness and what we would likely refer to as the soul. If the brain itself is mechanically responsible and/or linked to stimulating the sensations we have and even some of the thoughts that arise out of our subconscious, then where is the soul ultimately lodged? What role can it play and how does it all work?

To a certain extent, this isn’t a new problem. We have had, for as long as there has been faith, needed to deal with certain persons whose physical condition limits (or limits our access to) their cognitive ability. Brain damage is not a new concept and we know that when the wheels stop spinning properly upstairs, it changes the entirety of ones subjective experience. So what do we do about this?

Well, there are a few things I have concluded after four weeks of working on this: (1) there remains a significant gap between what scientists have discovered about the way the brain works and what needs to be accounted for given the way minds and society work, (2) there is still a difference, if not as much as a dichotomy, between mind and brain, and (3) there is an important underlying bias to the whole field of neuroscience.

The gap I am talking about has to do with the very nature of what science seems able to talk about. While neurology can find the parts of the brain that activate emotion, social sense, etc, they do so in a very basic way. While some neurologist (namely the ones I have been reading) seem to push for causal links between what our brain is like and how we act, it is not clear that things work that way. While we have the physical capacity for the things we experience (which in and of itself doesn’t sound like that novel a concept), our behavior and experience actually change the physical constitution of our brains. Though damaging parts of the brain seem to cut out certain functions (i.e. emoting, action-consequence mechanisms, etc.) it seems we might even be able to compensate for this. At best, neuroscience has found the basic mechanisms that are involved with how the brain functions and how they link to the mind; they do not explain the mind.

The second thing I realized is that, given the distance between what we know of the brain and how we experience the mind, while the two might not be distinct things, they are apparently not one thing either. We were talking about this in terms of something called “intersubjectivity.” The idea is that a person has intersubjective experience when they can understand/assume/feel from another person’s perspective. Literally, that they experience another as subject and not simply object. Recent work on something called “mirror neurons” point to a physical ability to experience intersubjectivity. When others around us emote, we can pick up on it at a pre-cognitive level (we feeling it without have to think about it). This is what is happening when a smiling baby elicits a similar response in an adult. There is actually something going on in the brain that recognizes the positive emotion and reflects it. But the problem we run into is that there is much more to intersubjectivity. As I wrote in a question for class: “This seems, in some way, to again dichotomize mind and brain by presenting the intersubjectivity of human minds as a tautology: you are only as intersubjectively attuned as you believe yourself to be?” We see this most clearly in cases where people dehumanize others (a mind action) and then feel no sympathy (apparently a brain action) when they treat others as less than human. There are two levels at play and the upper can overpower the lower. If we deny our intersubjective experience, we seem able to turn it off. This implies that, at best, the research we have done on the brain is far from melding mind and brain into one.

Lastly, there is an underlying belief that necessitates the outcomes mentioned above. Now, I am not just talking about the fact that most scientists would reject the notion of the soul and therefore never look for it in cognitive experience. My point is related, but not the same. When talking about the effect of one thing on another, we usually use the language of “causal direction” (i.e. X causes Y). Given the assumptions that most scientists have for how evolution must have worked in the development of our brains and how our minds are simply and outcome of that process, the causal direction must go from brain to mind. More specifically, the things that happen in the mind must be products of what is taking place in the brain. I will mitigate this by stating that the effect of the mind on the brain is accounted for (i.e. thinking bad thoughts or not developing your mind has physical consequences) but the mind must be accounted for as something that issues from the brain. Whether that is a justified position or not isn’t even important in understanding the simple fact that such a belief will determine the limits of what can be found in one’s scientific studies. Such assumptions of objectivity are the exact limiting factors that can fix a research paradigm in place, a la Kuhn.

This is not meant to debunk neuroscience. The work of science deals with fact. How those facts are interpreted (and they are interpreted) is what is at question. Regardless of whether I have this nailed down (and I likely don’t) this will hopefully raise good questions and an informed consideration of these questions is definitely needed.

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Monday, November 30, 2009

Theology of Sociology

Mead claims that the self can only emerge through interaction, that without language and socialization the self would never come to be. This prompts interesting questions: could we conceive of a person without language and who is never socialized? Would they, then, not have a self? What does that mean ontologically?

From a Christian perspective, this creates an interesting problem for it is hard to imagine the self in a way that seperates it from the Christian concept of the soul. One might even posit that the two are one and the same. Extending Mead’s argument, then, would raise the question, “If one has no language and is never socialized (ie. if they never interact with other people) would they then not have a soul? Is a soul something that develops in this way?” Good questions.

This becomes a problem only if we maintain that it is only inter-human interaction that leads to the development of the self (read: the soul). If that is not the case, then a rather remakable truth emerges. The existence and development of the soul (seperating those two functions so as not to claim that one could exist and yet not have a soul) depends on the fact that all souls interact, in their creation, with God. In the same way that the being of the Trinity is enhanced* and defined by its relational quality, so our being is enhanced and defined by our relationship with God. No one can avoid at least a minimal amount of relating to God – otherwise we could not exist.

This line of thinking does have interesting implications for conceptions of our need for and the working out of the Gospel. For example, though all people have at least that minimal required interaction with God necessary for our existence (perhaps common grace also figures into this concept as well), we all sever that connection and thus lost the source of interaction most crucial for the development and health of our soul. Salvation, then, could be conceived of as the reestablisment of that connection by which our souls can yet again develop as they ought, heaven becomes the fullest form of that interaction and thus the full blossoming of our self – our souls – through our interaction with God, hell is the punishment of eternal banishment from that presence through which our selves regress into near nothing – the death of the soul.

This all, mind you, is merely the consideration of a question and not meant to imply a definite understanding of a theology of sociology. However, it does raise the question as to whether such a venture might be, in some way, worthwhile.

*This is not to imply that God, in trinitarian form, is some how “better” than God in some other form, as if such a form were plausable option. God is by his nature both good and in trinity thus implying a completeness and absoluteness that could not be otherwise (ie. if God is good and is in trinity then any other form would neither be good nor would it be God). I use the term primarily to bridge the relational aspects of God and man.

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Monday, November 16, 2009

Durkheim and Religious Belief

Sociology, as a discipline, is not particularly friendly to religious faith. The framework of 'methodological atheism' makes it impossible to address the question of whether the things people believe in are actually true. In keeping with the desire to be a "science," sociologists admit that the reality of the objects of belief are beyond what we can measure and analyze. Or, it should be that we merely admit that and move one, whereas many are those who take the exclusion of the supernatural from the debate as a fitting opening to cut it out of our universe of possible realities. As students of the social, we look to root everything in the social.

Please remember that. It is a crucial fact. It is not that sociology is an unbiased discipline; it is a particularly biased one. Similar to how historians must conceive of the world leaving the role of God to the side, sociologist only bring in the supernatural to the extent that they are silent about it, omit it, or confuse it.

Take, for example, Durkheim's theories on the origins and functions of religion. Theorizing with the role of society in the place of supremacy, Durkheim doesn't try to overturn the ideas that notions of "the something greater than the individual" and divisions between the sacred/holy and the profane are not common to nearly all people; rather he re-roots them. The concept of God/the divine, he notes, is certainly rooted in a belief that there is something outside of the individual that is more powerful, more imposing, than he is, but that something is not the grandeur of nature, the stars, universe, or creation in general. Those views were common to evolutionary concepts of religion -man observes the "greater than himself" and conceives of the idea of deity. Durkheim changes the foundation point. The origin of that feeling is actually something greater than the individual: it is the social. As society wields some intangible power over the individual and his actions, often in ways imperceptible even to the most astute of observers, the individual absorbs the sensation of that power and thus is led to project the idea of deity. This is a clever little theoretical coup.

Durkheim's vision of the sacred is similarly intriguing. He again notes that there is a universal presence of concepts of the sacred - that all cultures and societies make separations between what is mundane and what is set apart as special, other, and revered. The otherness of the thing revered is reflected in the actions of separation and otherness that become ritualized parts of community religious life (and of social life in general).

On the surface, these are both quite intelligent arguments that make a lot of sense. But remember that, when approaching such arguments from a theistic, and in my case Christian, perspective, you don't accept the conclusions because you know you are playing with more cards than the scholar you are reading. What does that mean, practically? It means that, though Durkheim's mechanism may be quite useful, his premise makes this argument unconvincing. I can believe that the ritual action is crucial in the expression of sacredness in society or that society is the primary means through which divinity is expressed, but i am not bound to believe that sacredness and divinity are the products of society. For, if the first premise is that sacredness and divinity exist independent of either society or the individual, then both mechanisms become and expression of a built in compulsion. All cultures have concepts of the divine and sacredness not because they all have societies, but because they are common to all societies (which also helps explain why we sacrilize the things that aren't even sacred).

That is a little flip, but it does to things: (1) it maintains, or might even improve, the argument for the origins and function of religious belief, and (2) it brings sociological theory into a place where it is not directly contesting with faith. It works with, and not against, the faith structures that are valuable to those being theorized about. And that certainly makes me happier.

What this doesn't do is also two-fold: (1) it doesn't adhere to methodological atheism (which is why you will never see something like this in a work of sociology or an academic journal), and (2) it doesn't violate the bound of the data. There is nothing in Durkheim that proves he is right (which is why, at the end of the day, this is all just theory).

So, dear readers, read critically. Use what is useful; discard what is not.

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Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Few Points of Interest

1. Apparently, one of the best known winter vacations spots in China has decided to sell a little bit of itself. Part of the Harbin ice festival has come under Disney management (albeit, via proxy). This reminded me of Starbucks in the Forbidden City incident a few years back. What made me laugh that time was it was originally French tourist who complained about it. In the linked article, Rui Chenggang seems incensed, but that wounded national pride seemed like it took a little long to muster up (i have photos of that Starbucks from summer 2004). It will be interesting to see what the reaction will be to the changes in Harbin and who will complain first. (HT: LZM)

2. The first trial of a Khmer Rouge began this last week. Duch, the former director of the infamous Toul Sleng prison in Phnom Penh, will be the first of the war criminals to face trial for the atrocities of the period under Pol Pot. Francios Bizot has an interesting op-ed concerning the trial in the NYT. One quote in particular really made me think for a moment:“I ask for your forgiveness — I know that you cannot forgive me, but I ask you to leave me the hope that you might,” [Duch] said before collapsing in tears on the shoulder of one of his guards.

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Monday, February 16, 2009


The slower pace of life in Tainan hits you almost as soon as you get off the bus. Or, more accurately, it moseys over, shakes your hand and asks you what you want to eat first, reminding you to enjoy yourself as much as you can. In Tainan, that isn’t that difficult and task. In many ways, it reminds one of the feel in Chengdu, Sichuan, where life just goes by to the beat of another, much more relaxed drum (they say you can see the mahjong tables during your plane’s descent and that the smell of tea is ubiquitous). I was particularly lucky with my trip down south, as one of my good friends is a local and knows the city well and enjoys sharing its sights and sounds. Most of the stories and all the experiences are thanks to his well developed sense of what makes Tainan a truly unique place. And, as one of the oldest cities in Taiwan, it truly is a historical, cultural and culinary icon.

The city doesn’t skimp on history. In the 17th century, Tainan was the sight of a Dutch colony from which the Dutch staged a good deal of trade in the region. Their presence was short lived, as after the fall of the Ming dynasty, one of the Ming soldiers who continued to fight against the invading Manchus beat back the Dutch and claimed the city (and the island as a whole, really) as his staging area for further attacks on the mainland. Admiral Koxinga (陈成功) is praised throughout the island for this achievement (especially given he is one of a few examples of Chinese defeats of Westerners before the 1940s) and he is worshipped like a god. The marks of both these historical moments were on display at a few of the places I visited – namely the old Pingan fort (also known as old fort Zeelandia) and Chihkan Fort (Fort Provintia). Both boast little remaining Dutch architecture, but the images of the past are still quite evident and prove quite interesting. The Chihkan fort, now a temple in honor of Koxinga, has a series of tablet bearing stone tortoises. The story surrounding one of them is quite unique. According to the rumors, one of them mysteriously “wandered” down the street one night and was found blocks away. Some believed this a miraculous sign, others wondered if it was some kind of elaborate trick. My guide couldn’t really place which tortoise had been involved, but it made for a fun story. Another intriguing historical spot is an old trade office with what is called the “tree house.” I, of course, was expecting to find a lofted house high up in the boughs of some nearby tree. I had forgotten that I am in the land of the Banyan tree. These types of trees grow voraciously, like ivy, and literally pour all over and through nearby structures. The “tree house” was one such example, and was covered with the sprawling roots and branches.

Tainan boast some of the biggest, oldest, and most numerous temples of anywhere in Taiwan. The place is crawling with them. Think churches in the Bible belt and double it. Linked with temples are the many festivals that sprinkle the traditional Chinese calendar, and I was there for the specific purpose of taking part in celebrating one of them: the Lantern Festival (yaun xiao jie). Part of the festivities related to the Lantern Festival is the lighting of lanterns. These are rather large shuts on which are written prayers and hopes for the coming year. One can understand the symbolism.
Lit up like a small hot air balloon, the lanterns soar toward the heavens, carrying the prayers they wear with them. [as an aside, I noticed an eerie symbolism as I watched the lanterns go on their way. As they nearly winked out of sight, I often noticed that the fire that fueled them would weaken and, still slightly illuminated, the lantern would slowly fall back to earth. The remaining, feeble light seemed almost to mark the embarrassment at not having made it all the way to heaven with the prayers they carried. The poet in me munched away on this] Another classic part of the celebration in Tainan is the fengpao. Large scaffolds lined with mini fireworks are set up with the explosives aimed parallel to the ground and people crowd around, girded with thick layers and motorcycle helmets. The fireworks are then lit and go blazing into the crowd. It was quite the sight. You have to see it to fully understand the chaos. And of course, no Chinese holiday would be complete without an over-the-top fireworks display. Seated nearby manning a grill, it was a truly enjoyable experience for all the senses.

But if you go to Tainan, the real reason is always the food. As my friend put it, usually people just go from one meal to another with little in between as they enjoy the slower pace of life and the good company of friends. I will share some highlights. Though found throughout the island, oyster omelets in Tainan are a particular treat as the oyster come fresh from the nearby oyster farms. They are plump and tasty and the omelet is one of Taiwan’s culinary gems. Another dish that takes advantage of the juicy oysters is the shimu yu congee. The story I was told is that, when trying to name this local fish, some confusion developed and when one man asked “what type of fish is this? Zhe shi shenme yu?”it was mistaken for a statement and with the listeners thinking that shenme yu was the name of the fish. Shimu yu is of course a tad different, but pronunciation is like that sometimes. Regardless, this fish mixed with oysters in a salty congee with a little youtiao on the side is a delicious breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The douhua (a type of tofu mixed with a sweet juice and other toppings) is also supposed to be particularly good. The difference I noticed is that they serve it here with lemon juice, which adds a whole new delicious twist to the dish. Guancai ban is a fried bread that is cut opened and filled with various substances, one of which tastes almost exactly like what you would find in a pot pie – chicken, peas, and carrots in a savory cream sauce. They seem a tad odd, but are delightfully tasty. The last one I will mention was perhaps my favorite – Tainan style shrimp rolls. It is more like a fried shrimp mixture, as there isn’t an actual wrapping to it like one thinks of when they think of a role. But whatever you want to call them, the mixture of fresh shrimp and seasonings fries up scrumptiously. I could go on with the Tainan variation of flan, the night markets, fruit ices and more, but I am starting to salivate.

In all, a trip to Tainan is presents a compelling image of Taiwan. Whether it is the history, the cultural trimmings and trappings, or the famous eats, Tainan tells you something, not just about the local Tainanese, but about the sensibilities of the people all over the island.
[all pictures were randomly scoured off the internet. but they look exactly like what i ate.]

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Administrative Note

I have decided to repurpose this site, again. Instead of being primarily China related work, the dissident will house my more analytical work of cultural commentary, literature reviews, and articles. other items will be at the old home.

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Educated Elite?

The BBC’s publication of an article on how the current financial crisis is hitting not only Chinese factories, production, and the economy at large, but will directly squeeze the college students set to graduate in the summer. This, of course, goes without saying and is likely true of most countries across the world. I can vouch for the market shock has left friends with jobs threatened, lost, or never found to begin with. But the issue in China hits a spot that has already been weakened by years of growing tension.

In 1999, the Chinese government decided upon a generally beneficial and highly laudable program of education opportunity expansion that would dramatically increase the number of students enrolled in institutes of higher education. What had previously been available to a mere few would now be possible for far more as the government pressed to draw ever more people into the benefits of the developing economy. The results, as can be seen in the graph below, were dramatic.Within just a few years, the number of students enrolled in college quadrupled, expanding education opportunities to a previously unheard of scale. The problem with this was that economic growth was not keeping pace, or at least not in the way that had been hoped. Much of China’s growth has been in areas of production. The development of sectors that require highly trained, better educated populations have developed, but at a much slower pace, and certainly not in the exponential way that college enrollment has increased.

This became and remains problematic for a number of reasons. To begin with, it meant that far too many graduates were finding themselves unemployed or “underemployed” (employed in jobs or fields that either paid far less than expected or that could have been obtained without the investment in a college education). A second problem has been that this is a compounded crisis. Each year a larger number of graduates than before end up without suitable work and they are added to the prior pool of still unemployed graduates. In 2004, the first year that the boom classes began to graduate, this excess number of graduates was about half a million. That number has increased by around 200,000-300,000 each year. As Chris Hogg notes in the BBC article, there are an estimate six and a half million students graduating this next year. There were two and a half million in 2004.

Even before the current financial crisis, economic pressure was etched into the lives of Chinese students. Having had the opportunity to talk with hundreds of students in multiple major cities, I found that jobs and financial security was one of the most commonly discussed topics, competing tightly with the issues of dating and relationships for the lead. But even relationships eventually lead to discussions of economic solvency as young men bewail the twin curses of likely not having the economic stature to get married until their mid thirties (counting a well paid job, car, and apartment as must haves and calculating based on expected salaries after graduating) and seeing the most desirable of their female classmates often choosing to marry up – finding a financially established though older man. Female students often discuss their college years as a time to play around in relationships – to fall in and out of love – because their choices concerning marriage will be more pragmatically motivated. It also goes without saying that the pressures of the one Child policy and the necessity that such a single child provide for both his parents and grandparents is universally felt.

The government is promising job creation. This, however, may prove a pipe-dream as the economy continues to contract. It is also important to note that creating more jobs for struggling graduates has been tried before but to little effect. Nine million jobs is the exact number that the government promised to create in 2003 to meet the needs of the coming graduate class. That scheme was nearly imperceptible in terms of overall impact over the next few years (China Daily December 23, 2003).

As much as the media has pointed to the closing of factories and the return of migrant workers to their hometowns as an anxious and unemployed class as a possible source of social instability, unemployed college graduates may be an even bigger problem. For starters, workers are much more likely to act locally, responding to specific grievances through specific means with very tangible ends in mind. They are also limited in terms of the scope of their activities. Local disturbances, though sometimes large (hence the popular use of the term “mass disturbances”) rarely expand beyond their locale. Students are a frighteningly different story. These unemployed masses are far more interconnected as they have grown up with a healthy diet of cell-phones, text messages, blogs and BBS boards. These are the engines of widespread mass movements over the last few years. The anti-Japan riots in 2005 and anti-French protests of last year were all products of mobilization via internet resources, as are the frequent and frightening human flesh searches. This is the playground of the jobless student.

Students graduating without jobs also have a bit more to gripe about. This is not in regards to their level of estrangement from the benefits of the state, but more in terms of their having invested heavily and lost out. The amount of pressure, studious hours, and money spent to get a student into and through college is enormous. To emerge from that process jobless or with prospects no different than one who had never entered at all is a hard for most students to simply accept. It would be hard to imagine these students not exhibiting some form of frustration; the questions remain what form, at whom and to what degree.

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Saturday, November 22, 2008

GCC Review: Wolf Totem

My review of Jiang Rong's novel _Wolf Totem_ over at the GCC website: [here]

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